The Most Important Skill For 21st-Century Success

What new skills have you had to pick up so far in your career? What will you need to master next in order to reach your goals? How about in a year or five years from now?

Those may be hard questions to answer. The world of work is changing so rapidly, as emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation change job requirements. As technologies continue to evolve and business conditions shift, employees must stay in learning mode so their skills don’t lose currency.

It’s one thing to keep up with skills as they’re changing in the here and now. It’s a whole different challenge to prepare yourself for tools and technologies that may exist only in the minds of engineers, if at all. Meanwhile, too many of us neglect to develop important soft skills when the need for hard skills feels so urgent, even though our ongoing career success depends on a healthy blend of the two.

There’s so much uncertainty and ambiguity around the future of work, it doesn’t matter your industry or job function. That’s why, when anyone asks what the next “hot” skill will be, I say it’s the same skill that will serve people today, tomorrow, and far into the future—the ability to learn.

Even if you don’t know exactly what you’ll need to learn, you can’t go wrong cultivating a growth mindset and embracing the idea that you’ll have to learn something. It doesn’t matter if you graduated from college last year or 10 years ago. Your ability and willingness to continually build new knowledge and skills could spell the difference between a continuous upward trajectory and a career plateau.

Learning drives adaptability

When people embrace lifelong learning, assimilating new skills isn’t a source of fear and stress—it’s just another part of their career journey. Separating process from outcome will make you a better learner too, as you get less fixated on immediate mastery of a skill and more appreciative of how moving outside your comfort zone helps you grow as a person.

A learning mindset also makes it less likely you’ll be thrown off or immobilized when a project changes scope or a job function undergoes transformation. While others scramble to figure out where to go from here, lifelong learners maintain momentum and productivity.

It’s critical, however, to include soft skills in equation too. At minimum, they provide the foundation for hard skills to reach their full potential. But soft skills are also things that can’t be replaced by automation, such as leadership, judgment, and critical thinking. In the face of fast and furious change, soft skills help professionals work smarter.

Companies want avid lifelong learners

When we talk about the skills gap, we tend to focus on the disconnect between the skills college grads have when they hit the job market and the skills employers seek in new hires. That’s a real challenge, without question, but what about workers who are already a few years (or more) into their careers? Their skills gap will grow every year unless they continue actively learning new skills and technologies.

Once someone earns a reputation as a capable and enthusiastic learner, they’re far more likely to be tapped by decision makers for worthwhile opportunities, like a high-profile project or open management role. And they’ll be better prepared to take full advantage of those opportunities.

Corporate leaders would be wrong to dismiss learning and development as just something to make employees “happy.” Companies with a learning-driven culture reap the rewards in plenty of ways that go straight to the bottom line. For one thing, they can effectively close their own skills gaps by offering robust L&D opportunities to existing staff, thereby lowering the considerable costs associated with sourcing, hiring, and onboarding new talent. They can also spur innovation by allowing people to learn (and work) across functions, which brings fresh ideas and points of view into play.

Curiosity is career fuel

To stay engaged in your job and career, you need to pull your head out of the daily weeds. Understanding how your efforts fit into the bigger picture will give your work more meaning and give you new ideas to apply, so you don’t burn out or stagnate. Learning about something you’re curious about, even if it’s not immediately applicable to your job, expands your thinking, and that’s relevant to everything you do.

If “the next hot skill” is an unknown, following your curiosity—about your industry, community, world—can give you direction and inspiration. It’s also a good idea to scan descriptions of intriguing jobs to see where you should strengthen your skills or may have a gap.

No matter where you picture yourself going in your professional life, you’re going to have to learn new skills. This can be scary, exciting, paralyzing, motivating, or some combination thereof. Rather than think of learning as forcing down bad-tasting medicine, you should consider learning the magic elixir that facilitates everything else you do. It’s the one skill that can take all of your other skills to the next level and will be there for you at every stage of your career, no matter what else changes in our unpredictable world.

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